Jane Eyre and 10 Other Scary Houses Movies

Jane Eyre and the World of Scary Houses

While not an overt ghost story, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, influenced by the haunted house tales of its own era, casts a shadow over a subsequent century of them. Throughout the novel, there is much talk of ghosts as when the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax tells Jane about a part of the mysterious manse, “if there were a ghost at Thornfield Hall, this would be its haunt.” A modern revival of gothic storytelling has meant that some of today’s cinema is very much in keeping with the issues dramatized by Bronte within Thornfield Hall. But as technology has marched forward, new inflections have been placed on the haunted house. “I often say that haunted house novels are a near-universally overlooked form of architectural writing,” quipped speculative architecture critic Geoff Manaugh in an interview.

There’s No Place Like a Haunted Home

The Roehrs House, Franklin Lakes, New Jersey from Corrine May Botz’ Haunted Houses

For her latest book of photography, Haunted Houses, Corrine May Botz surveyed a ghostly America, taking her camera inside homes that were famously occupied by the spirits as well as those that just seemed affected by a spectral presence. Explaining her photographic fascination, she writes, “My venture into haunted houses began the summer following my college graduation. I was living in an old Baltimore apartment, where I passed the long, hot days reading ghost stories by the female authors Edith Wharton, Charlotte Bronte, Ellen Glasgow and Toni Morrison. In the stories I read that summer, the ghost functioned as a way to explore topics such as abuse, property rights, mothering, unfulfilled desire, and the porous boundary between inner and outer worlds. Many of the authors were Victorian and they were considered ghostlike themselves, alienated and marginalized by society. Their ghost stories have been interpreted as a means of voicing what they could not otherwise say.”  Indeed, the fusion of the ghost, with its invariably personal, tragic back story, and the home, that symbol of hearth, security, property and capital, has created a body of literature and film that strikes us at our core. The drafty lobbies, dark corridors and musty attics of the classic haunted manor are the rooms of our mind, places where our anxieties live while their authors unwrap them for us through their dramatic narratives. Here are ten of cinema’s most distinctively scary — or perhaps simply uncanny — houses.

The Innocents: Henry James’ Turn on Jane Eyre

In addition to being a chilling ghost story, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw contains the template for much 20th century gothic horror: an isolated country estate (Bly Manor), an unstable governess, children who may or may not be seeing ghosts, and an ominous backstory. Indeed, James drew upon—and some say parodied––gothic romances like Jane Eyre in his unsettling novella. In The Turn of the Screw, a governess is hired to take care of two orphaned children. She slowly becomes convinced that the grounds are haunted, with the ghosts of her predecessor and another employee communicating with the children. As is common in much gothic fiction, the house is large, dizzying in its sprawl, with our governess heroine traversing, as James wrote for her first-person narration, its “empty chambers and dull corridors… crooked staircases that made me pause…” and its “old machicolated square tower that made me dizzy.” In Jack Clayton’s 1961 adaptation, The Innocents, Bly Manor is captured with all its haunted grandeur by cinematographer Freddie Francis, with his camera gliding through the sparely furnished rooms and long corridors. (Francis won an Oscar for his wide-screen, deep focus black-and-white cinematography.) Deborah Kerr plays the governess, Miss Giddens, and the character’s increasing mental instability coupled with Clayton and Francis’s terrifying visuals produced what Martin Scorsese has called one of the ten scariest movies ever made. He wrote, “This Jack Clayton adaptation of The Turn of the Screw is one of the rare pictures that does justice to Henry James. It’s beautifully crafted and acted, immaculately shot (by Freddie Francis), and very scary.” (Indeed, the film’s reality games are a clear influence on his own Shutter Island.)

The Haunting: The Science of Scary

Robert Wise adapted Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House for his 1963 film The Haunting, which Martin Scorsese dubbed the scariest film of all time. According to the American Film Institute, Wise had read Jackson’s novel on the set of West Side Story and jumped out of his seat. Determined to transfer that jolt to his audiences, Wise, like The Innocents director Jack Clayton, used wide-angle lenses to give the house a visually creepy vibe, even cajoling Panavision to give him lenses that were not yet approved for the market because they distorted the image too much. In The Haunting, a scientist gathers a small group to spend several nights in a supposedly haunted house in what will be an investigation of the paranormal. A camera careening down a spiral staircase and a “breathing” door that buckles against its frame are just two of the scary household flourishes that make Hill House one of the most famous haunted abodes ever. It’s even a stop on Britain’s Movie Magic Tour, which takes fans to the sites of their favorite movies. While the story was set in New England, and the interiors shot at the MGM Studios in Borehamwood, the exterior was, says Robert Wise, “a several-hundred-years-old manor house out in the country, about ten miles from Stratford-on-Avon. It was a pretty horrifying-looking thing under certain kinds of lights and I accentuated that by shooting some of the exteriors with infra-red film.” At the May, 2010 event, fans stayed overnight in that home with star Richard Johnson hosting a candlelit screening of the film.

The Shining: The Places that Drive You Mad

When asked to imagine the vibe of Jane Eyre’s Thornfield Manor, d.p. Adriano Goldman recalled another iconic and unsettling cinematic setting: “Thornfield put us in mind of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining,” he said. Indeed, the shuttered hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s Stephen King adaptation is one of the scariest of film settings, with endless corridors, a fear-inducing topiary maze, and blood-spewing elevators. While many believe that Overlook is a real location, the hotel was almost entirely built on a stage. Oregon’s Timberline Lodge was used for some exterior establishing shots, but the interiors were built at EMI Studios in England. The Awhanee Hotel in Yosemite National Park was an inspiration for the main lobby interior while Arizona’s Biltmore Hotel reportedly influenced the red men’s bathroom.  Kubrick’s resulting theatrical composite, the vast, depopulated Overlook, is simply terrifying in its gigantic loneliness. Commented Garrett Brown in American Cinematography, whose gliding steadicam is one of The Shining’s signature flourishes, “The Overlook Hotel itself became a maze; absurdly oversized quarters for the players, yet ultimately claustrophobic. Here were fabulous sets for the moving camera; we could travel unobtrusively from space to space or lurk in the shadows with a menacing presence.” Wrote Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound, “…horror cinema is an art of claustrophobia, making us loath to stay in the cinema but unable to leave. Yet it's combined with a sort of agoraphobia—we are as frightened of the hotel's cavernous vastness as of its corridors' enclosure.” But perhaps the best summation of the relationship between the Overlook—indeed, between any scary setting—and the story of the people who live inside comes in the form of a question from Paul Mayersberg in his 1980 Sight and Sound article on the film: “Does the place drive you crazy, or are you crazy to live in the place?"

Demon Seed: The Ghost in the Machine

“House of Night” was author Dean Koontz’s original name for his novel, Demon Seed, but his publisher nixed it, claiming that it sounded like either a gothic romance or a story about prostitution. Instead, Demon Seed, directed by Donald Cammell, is a sci-fi shocker in which the protagonist’s “ smart house” becomes a terrifying sexual predator. Julie Christie plays Susan, wife of computer scientist Alex Harris, the creator of an artificial intelligence system that’s capable of not only curing disease but acting as a personal butler. Of course, good help is hard to find. Soon the computer has taken over the home, sealing Susan inside while using its robot arms to restrain her so it can impregnate within her its “demon seed.” The film has become a cult favorite, although its reception was mixed at the time. Wrote Koontz, some critics found the film’s set-up implausible: “A recurring theme among those who didn’t get the premise––which was usually the self-appointed “intellectual” critic––was the contention that the story was too ridiculous because it supposed that Julie Christie’s husband, a pioneer in artificial-intelligence research, would have a computer in his home. Yes, of course, he might have one in his laboratory, but no one would ever be able to have a computer in his home, because as everyone knows, computers are gigantic and will always be humongous, and they are fabutastically expensive and always will be.”

Suspiria: A Maze in Real Estate

From its opening moments, as an eerie—and very loud—theme by Italian prog rock band Goblin plays underneath American dancer Jessica Harper’s arrival amidst a torrential downpour to a Munich ballet academy, Dario Argento’s Suspiria is a Technicolor-drenched fever dream of a horror movie. When the very bloody murder of one of the dancers roils the academy, Harper’s character slowly realizes what the audience—primed by chanted cries of “Witch! Witch!” on the soundtrack—already knows: that this dance school is actually a coven of witches. In Argento and screenwriter Daria Nicolodi’s story, the academy, with its bright Art Deco interiors, is not only a physical maze but a maze of the mind. Located on the street of “Escherstrasse,” the school has wallpaper decorated with the pictorial labyrinths of the Swiss artist, and as the film progresses, its corridors and rooms become increasingly the landscape of nightmares. In one scene, a fleeing Harper opens a door, takes a step… and tumbles into a sunken bright blue room filled with barbed wire. Such are the associations prompted by the film and its distinctive soundtrack that the Goblin theme has been used recently on the trailers for not only the dance-themed Black Swan but also Jane Eyre.

The Others: Everyone Haunts Someone

Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others, starring Nicole Kidman, is one of the best of The Turn of the Screw-inspired haunted estate movies. Set just after World War 2 on the island of Jersey, the film tells the story of mother with a young boy and girl living in a drafty old Victorian manor. Her servants have mysteriously vanished, and her husband is believed dead in the war. By day, Kidman’s character teaches her children religion, and when three new servants appear one day, she teaches them the rules of the 50-room house. “No door must be opened unless the one before is closed,” she says. And because her children are allergic to sunlight, the curtains must always be drawn. There’s a dramatic third-act twist, which we won’t spoil for you, but it places the film’s earlier incongruities in a logical new light. In an interview, Amenabar said he wanted to make a film about fear, and that it was important to him to find a shooting location that would convey a sense of “haunting”—a search that took him back to his homeland of Spain. First, though, he traveled with his producers to Jersey, the film’s setting. "We found a house on the island but the owner wouldn't let us shoot there,” Amenabar told Hollywood.com. “We went looking for haunted houses. Someone found this house in Spain, which was perfect for me because I wanted to do the interiors in Spain. If we had found this house in London, we would have taken it for sure. It was haunting and realistic at the same time.”

The Orphanage: Horror Stripped Bare

The home at the center of Juan Antonio Bayona’s mournful Spanish shocker The Orphange is an actual orphanage—or, rather, a former one—that heroine Laura (Belen Reuda) wants to refurbish and turn into a home for special needs children. In a dramatic tale that melds horror with social commentary, Laura’s son Simon vanishes from the house, and she believes he’s been abducted. She also believes the house is haunted by the ghosts of orphan children who were killed there. In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Bayona acknowledged the influence of The Turn of the Screw on his work. “We talked a lot about Jack Clayton’s version of The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents, and there is another Jack Clayton [movie] I love, which is Our Mother’s House. It’s a very small movie from the ’60s about these children who live with their mother, and when the mother dies they decide not to tell anybody.” To make The Orphanage something unexpected, Bayona diverged from the template of much scary-house Gothic horror. “I stripped the movie of all the classic Gothic elements until finally the movie is bare: there’s just one character in the house, there’s no dialogue. The audience doesn’t know where to go, because after the mystery is solved they think the movie is ending, but the whole point of the movie comes after that.” Indeed, The Orphanage has one of the most heartbreaking final scenes you’ll ever see, one that is both strangely triumphal yet deeply sad.

Safe: Suburban Scary

The idea of the home as a place of protection is ironically and deviously subverted in Todd Haynes’ Safe. Julianne Moore plays Carol White, a Los Angeles housewife for whom the quotidian activities of modern life become mysteriously poisonous. Haynes shoots her upscale home, with its white curtains and studiously bland furnishings, in chilling wide angle shots, isolating White’s fragile figure within the frame. Like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, Safe finds menace in the environment, except that instead of industrial factories it is White’s upscale home, with its chemical-glazed white curtains and studiously bland furnishings, that harbors an unseen toxicity. Describing this home, Ed Howard at the House Next Door said, “Carol's house is in a state of perpetual disarray, constantly under construction, as though she believes that if she can only perfect this sterile living space, she will be happy and fulfilled. Haynes frames Carol as tiny within her own home, dwarfed by the size of the rooms and the clutter of furniture, lost in the array of colorful pastels. There's something alienating about this space…” For Haynes, White’s home was inspired by his own memories. He told Artforum, “I was thinking of Encino, where my parents just happen to live and where the architecture is at once stunning, frightening, and fascinating—fake Tudor, fake country manor, at night bathed in the iridescent blue-green glow of street lamps and landscape lighting, with that buzz of electricity in the air. Everything the film is about can be seen in those houses from outside at night.”

The Winchester Trilogy: American Fear

In the late artist Jeremy Blake’s gallery installation The Winchester Trilogy, three films are projected simultaneously on three separate screens as Blake plumbs the psyche of Winchester rifle heiress Sarah Winchester. She built her sprawling family mansion in San Jose, CA in 1884 and continued its construction for 38 years, convinced that the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles would kill her too were she to stop. In an interview with Blake, critic Torben Olander wrote, “Thus Sarah spent her inherited fortune adding room upon room, creating an architectural marvel with staircases leading nowhere, trap doors, chimneys serving no purpose and double-back hallways until she died in her sleep in 1922.” Said Blake, “[The Winchester house] reminded me of the American obsession with massive scale and the sort of upper class monster houses that are being built in contemporary suburban America. I liked that the first one was built to house ghosts, because it captures something truly American about how we are working hard in this world to get to the next. And then there is also the obsession with protection from unseen threats, which has become present again.”

Gravity was Everywhere Back Then: DIY Scary

Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then is another film in which a home’s construction provides the film’s own eerie narrative. For his stop-motion, live-action animated feature, Pennsylvania-based filmmaker Brent Green dramatized the true story of Leonard Wood, a Kentucky man who, when his wife was diagnosed with cancer, built his house into what he thought would be a kind of healing machine. He was convinced that as long as he kept building, his wife would remain alive. When she died, he continued building anyway until his own death over a decade later. For his film, Green decided to find an emotional truth by investing himself in a replica of Wood’s own endeavor. “I have six acres of land and very little money, so the only way for me to tell Leonard’s story was to make it on my own property,” he wrote for Filmmaker. “I had to reconstruct the house. I couldn’t make the film a hand-drawn animation or shoot it on miniature sets because Leonard’s act of building the house wouldn’t seem so Herculean. He built this thing himself, by hand, with no money over the course of 20 years. I knew my movie about his life had to embrace a similar kind of crazy ambition.” Full of idiosyncratic details, homemade touches, and a crazy sense of scale, Green’s heartfelt recreation of Wood’s home suffuses his film with a sense of both wonder and sorrow.

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